Profile| Ballet Fever | David Briskin and the National Ballet | By Joy Tanner
Snow dances across the sky as the Holidays descend upon the city. It’s the time of year again when we steal a moment to breathe and remember the magic of our childhood. It is the season the National Ballet presents The Nutcracker. Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s music is iconic, and it is a ballet that evokes strong memories in most of us, although the composer bemoaned the 1891 St. Petersburgh commission. Based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker and Mouse King, it’s become part of the North American cultural-holiday DNA, not in it’s motherland, Russia. David Briskin, the Musical Director and Principal Conductor of the National Ballet since 2006, helped round out the background.
David is down to earth, keenly insightful and beyond passionate about music. He spent seven years with The American Ballet Theatre at the MET and NY City Center. He has performed with the Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Jose Limon’s dance companies have all worked with David. He is also an educator, where he served as artistic co-ordinator of Chamber Music at the Society of Lincoln Center’s Education Concerts and on the faculties of Queens College and CUNY. In 2008, he became the Director of Orchestral Studies and Principal Conductor of the University of Toronto’s Symphony Orchestra. His expertise runs the gamut of the Opera and Symphonic worlds as well.
Conducting is a specific calling; David explains that he’d hear a piece of music and think, ‘I’d like it to be different. I would rather this be a little faster or slower, have a different phrasing to it. Maybe the balance is a little different. And this was the driving force in making it my own.’ A conversation with a roommate in graduate school helped solidify the perspective. “We were young and the world was wide open and you’re so idealistic and everything is wonderful, and I’m having this conversation…. There really is no point to conducting a piece of music unless you are going to have your own point of view. Why would you just do it, to do it again?” He tells his students “You get behind it (the piece) and you look at it and you let it speak to you. You have a relationship with the music before you go in front of the orchestra. The real role is not just some guy or woman up there with a stick, telling people what to do. It’s much more organic, and much more reciprocal.” He likens his job to an electrical conductor. “We conduct the energy between all the musicians and the audience.” He continues, “The dancers add another dimension. There is always flexibility and interpretation happening in the moment. It’s not about waving your arms about. All the detailed work happens in rehearsal and in the performance, anything, anything can happen. And that’s the most exciting thing. The whole will hopefully be greater than the sum of the parts. That’s what we strive for.”
What really got him jazzed was talking about new works at The National. “Did you see anything about Le Petit Prince? I’m not sure if I can talk about it.” Briskin connected TSO composer Kevin Lau to The National Ballet’s principal dancer, Guillaume Cote, who is an emerging choreographer with the company. This new ballet will premiere during the 2015-2016 Season. He also works very closely with Joby Talbot, who composed Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, which are co- productions with the Royal Ballet of Covent Garden. Briskin acted as a bridge between the composer and orchestra during the early stages of inception. He was in London this spring conducting The Winter’s Tale, which will have it’s North American premiere during the 2015-2016 season. “It’s absolutely brilliant! It’s the most exciting and moving and theatrical ballet of our time. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic about it, but Christopher Wheeldon (the choreographer of Alice as well), has pushed the boundaries of narrative ballet. Most people thought he was mad to take on such a difficult story and he manages to tell it with such clarity and such beauty. By the end of the third act, people are weeping! To be a part of this new work and bring it together with all the elements is unbelievably satisfying.”
You may have to wait until next year for these gems, but you can see David conducting The Nutcracker this season. It runs from December 13th through January 3, 2015. Make some wonderful memories with your family with this magical classic. Hopefully you and your children will have visions not only of sugar plums, but of The Sugar Plum Fairy, that “danced in their heads.”
Tickets are available online at national.ballet.ca or call (416) 345-9595
Joy Tanner hails from Pittsford, New York. Graduating with honours with a double major in English and Theatre from SUNY Potsdam, she also holds a diploma from the British American Drama Academy (London/Oxford). She moved to Canada in the early 90′s, and has been acting professionally on both the big and small screens for over 20 years. She is best know for her roles in Cold Squad, Life With Derek and DeGrassi The Next Generation. Recent film credits include The Phantoms, The House At The End Of The Street and Neverlake.
PHOTO CREDITS: TOP- ALEKSANDAR ANTONIJEVIC, ABOVE- CHRISTIAN STEINER